Learning to speak Sicilian

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Here's little two-year-old Leah having a discussion with her great-grandma (bisnonna). At a young age, Leah is already very aware of her cultural trait of Italian hand speaking.

My dad was born in the Austrian Alps, but right next to the Italian border, and he has some Italian traits mixed in with the Germanic heritage.  I must have picked up some of the Italian gestural characteristics from that side of the family, because it's almost impossible for me to keep my hands still when I talk.



[h.t. Gene Hill]


  1. John J Chew said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 8:14 pm

    When my linguist father moved to Toronto in the 1960s, he observed that the local Italian community had had to adapt their speech gestures to the local climate: hands still had to move, but winter weather kept them confined to coat pockets, resulting in coat fabric being repeatedly thrusted this way and that in animated conversation.

    It reminded me of cold winter days in Tokyo as a child, when rock-paper-scissors in the schoolyard had to be played with one's legs and not hands.

  2. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 7:54 am


    Reminds me of _my_ great-grandmother (Abruzzese, though, not Sicilian, but speaking a form of the Neapolitan dialect that is within the Sprachbund of Sicilian / Calabrese / Neapolitan).

    In terms of speech content, Sicilian can be impenetrable. All I got was "…tutto che devo fare…" (everything that I have to do) and "testadura" (hard-head / stubborn).

    But, I did better than Youtube, which, according to the closed captions, thinks that the woman is speaking Dutch.

  3. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 8:05 am

    Edit: She also intersperses her speech with English, e.g. "Yeah, I know" / "Listen to me". Like my own nonna (we didn't use the term "bisnonna" — every female lineal ascendant above "mamma" was "nonna", and every non-lineal ascendant was "zizi" or "cumare"), her everyday household speech is probably a mix of English, local Italian dialect, and Standard Italian.

    On the second listen, it seems like she's saying, "La nonna ha una testa dura" ("your grandmother is stubborn").

    And that girl will keep those sounds and those gestures, and the aromas of that kitchen in her mind and in her heart for the rest of her life.

    Gosh, the air must be awfully dry in here, my eyes are watering again…

  4. Matteo said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 9:14 am

    As an Italian who has never visited the USA and never had contact with italo-americans, I am amazed by this kind of content. Obviously speaking English in my country is nowadays associated with a good level of education, while regional languages are all of the opposite: seeing them mix up in this way is very interesting. A similar video that became very popular (although much more on the joke side) is this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2R0NSKtVA0

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 1:41 pm

    Even if a place in the Austrian Alps is right right next to the border with Italy, the culture on the Italian side is still German (Alto Adige/Südtirol).

  6. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 11, 2020 @ 4:15 pm


    That's the funny thing about language: to an Italian, an American speaking a dialect or speech register such as Gullah, Cajun, or Pittsburghese, might be viewed as employing an "interesting", if barely-comprehensible, variety of Standard American English (SAE). But to an American, in most cases, we would tend to think of it as just "bad English".

    It's not a perfect analogy — the history of Italian (you can correct me if I'm wrong) is more-or-less a CON-vergence towards something like Dante Alighieri's Florentine dialect from various dialects of Latina Vulgara, whereas the history of American English is more-or-less a DI-vergence away from the language of the Mayflower Pilgrims, colored by various immigrant groups in various regions at various times.

  7. Rodger C said,

    February 12, 2020 @ 7:34 am

    the history of American English is more-or-less a DI-vergence away from the language of the Mayflower Pilgrims

    A textbook myth fostered by the descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims.

  8. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 12, 2020 @ 9:04 am

    Rodger C,

    That's just what _they_ want you to think.

  9. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    February 12, 2020 @ 12:00 pm

    Sorry that this is off topic, but I do not know how else to elicit a professional linguistic POV on this (or this kind of) post. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3530690&dgcid=ejournal_htmlemail_nber:working:paper:series_abstractlink

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    February 12, 2020 @ 12:12 pm

    Are you seeking feedback on only the abstract, or on the 38pp paper as a whole ? If the latter, then you would need to make it available to potential reviewers without requiring USD 5·00 up front; if the former, then I pesonally find the following two extracts particularly opaque :

    1) "disentangling the effect of the accent from that of omitted variables"
    2) "workers with distinctive regional accents tend to sort away from occupations"

  11. J Rohsenow said,

    February 13, 2020 @ 3:16 pm

    Isn't anyone going to ask for clarification of John Chew's initial response
    "It reminded me of cold winter days in Tokyo as a child, when rock-paper-scissors in the schoolyard had to be played with one's legs and not hands."? JC: how exactly was that accomplished?

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